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1 In 1994, the first French bioethics law legalized medically assisted reproduction (MAR) for infertile different-sex couples. In 2020, it was extended to lesbian couples and single women. Access to assisted reproduction is thus expanding while remaining scrupulously regulated—a situation that led Dominique Mehl, CNRS researcher, to quip that ‘assisted reproduction has been deconfined, [1] but not liberated’ (p. 151).

2 In this book, Mehl, a sociologist, offers a detailed overview of the controversies surrounding the recent revision of the French bioethics law, from the first steps to its adoption by the National Assembly on its second reading on 31 July 2020. This book thus continues in the line of her previous publications. [2] Over the course of five chapters, Mehl guides the reader through three major developments: first, assisted reproduction for all women, followed by unconditional access to information about origins—exploring the question of donor anonymity—and ending with other advances that have been less widely discussed. Mehl’s ambition is considerable: to retrace the history of public and political polemics around childbearing with a third-party donor.

3 The first chapter introduces some of the recent transformations of kinship and family, now a ‘composite, plural landscape’. Blended families, single-parent families, same-sex parent families, third-party donor families; all involve the dissociation of elements ordinarily joined. Sexuality, procreation, partnership, and parenthood no longer systematically follow one and the same order. ‘Making (a) family’ depends above all on a bond forged around plans for parenthood, a finding shared by many sociologists.

4 Mehl then presents the debates surrounding MAR for all women (PMA pour toutes) in France. Medical, social, and egalitarian arguments blended together in defence of the reform. The principle of access to MAR is built on a demand for equality between all women and the rejection of discrimination. A more liberal perspective presents it as part of a wider movement of the state’s withdrawal from private life, in the name of the freedom to procreate. A front of opposition was led by the Catholic Church, supported by the Alliance Vita and the Manif pour Tous, which drew their arguments from the repertoire of the defence of nature and psychoanalytic culture. Other, more secondary arguments included the possibility of a threat to children’s stability, a lack of available gametes, etc. A new cause emerged between defendants and opponents, provoking absolute hostility in its adversaries: solo motherhood, [3] the subject of Mehl’s previous book. In the end, the political authorities enshrined the principle of access to MAR for all women, with funding from the social security system.

5 Amid these polemics, filiation became a crucial topic of confrontations. It is the focus of the second chapter of the book. The social sciences allow this term, with its somewhat murky range of common-sense uses—like other notions characterizing the family—to be more rigorously specified. [4] ‘Filiation establishes the legal bond between parents and children’, as specified by legislators, Mehl explains (p. 47), whereas ‘parenthood [parentalité] is anchored in the everyday exercise of the parental function’ (p. 48). In France, heterosexual filiation rests on two foundations: a ‘corporeal’ [charnelle] filiation between mother and child, first, and a ‘half-biological, half-voluntary’ paternity based on the presumed father, which is more complex to establish. [5] The big question is what ‘filial pact’ is to be offered to same-sex couples. How should the parenthood of children born through donations be established? On what basis should filiation be (re) founded? Will the biological take precedence, or social investment in parenthood? The minister of the family called upon academics to provide answers, and a procession of proposals followed: advance joint declaration of filiation—a formula borrowed from Irène Théry—or alignment with common law. Sociologists emerged as key consultants on the legal scene. In the end, a compromise was adopted for lesbian couples: ‘advance recognition of filiation’ (reconnaissance anticipée de filiation). The filiation of the woman who gives birth is recognized via the birth certificate; that of the other woman through a joint declaration endorsing the plan for shared parenthood.

6 The question of filiation has been replaced by the issue of donor anonymity, which long remained in shadow. The book’s next chapter delves into the roots of individuals’ right to know their origins, and of its partial reform, in both medical demands and moral struggle. From its beginnings, the French bioethics law treated donor anonymity as an imperative. It emphasizes the voluntary aspect of parenthood. It simultaneously protects the parents, the donors, and the family norm: the couple is protected against the revelation of their infertility, and assured of the impossibility of a claim of paternity by the biological father; the donor is protected from the child’s intrusion into their personal life. Today, however, anonymity is now at the centre of unfolding social change. The children of donors have been speaking out, and genetic testing can reveal the identities of donors. This new public conversation marks a turning point. The ‘malaise’ of children who do not know the identity of their biological parent is no longer an individual affair; the time has come for family secrets to disappear, and for demands for equality and transparency to be heard. A new balance must be struck between respect for privacy and the right to know one’s origins. Donation must be made a public social issue; herein, no doubt, lies real ethical progress. Article 3 of the bill tabled by the government on 24 July 2019 establishes children’s access to ‘non-identifying data’ about the donor (age, physical characteristics, family situation, country of birth, motivations for the donation). Any person born of a donation now has the right to know their history when they come of age, although the relational dimension is sidelined.

7 This change has been accompanied by other, parallel developments. Oocyte preservation on grounds of age—strongly defended by gynaecologists—is ceasing to be a taboo. The other adaptation of the law concerns MAR with double donation. These two advances were already in effect in most European countries, reflecting France’s late progress in bioethics. [6] Mehl also recalls other issues that stand in need of further public conversation: transgender issues, post-mortem MAR, reception of oocytes from the partner, [7] and surrogacy. Overall, liberalization is progressing, but there is still a long way to go. Things are opening up, but much territory is yet to be conquered. Procreation and filiation remain firmly attached to each other, and the bodily experience of motherhood continues to be treated as constitutive of ‘good’ parenthood. One regrettable point is that Mehl devotes little space to questioning the gender norms associated with ‘reproductive work’. [8]

8 The remarkable quality of Dominique Mehl’s work must be recognized. After combing through extensive media and legal archives, Mehl succeeds here in precisely reconstructing what was at stake in the process of revising the French bioethics law, in a limpid and accessible style. The book illustrates what went on behind the scenes of a law ‘in the making’, as citizens, scientists, and political and associative actors all sought to make their voices heard. The issue is to understand how legal constructions come to be accommodated to reality, a task in which researchers clearly have a role to play. Even more, the book highlights the fundamental role of the law in legitimizing particular models of parenthood and family. One question remains unanswered: will this change in the law lead to a transformation of practices?


  • [1]
    Translator’s note: the French term for lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic was confinement, with the end of lockdown known as déconfinement.
  • [2]
    Mehl D., 1999, Naître? La controverse bioéthique, Bayard; 2008, Enfants du don, procréation médicalement assistée: parents et enfants témoignent, Robert Laffont; 2011, Les lois de l’enfantement, Presses de Sciences Po.
  • [3]
    Mehl D., 2016, Maternités solo, Éditions universitaires européennes.
  • [4]
    One example is Claude Martin’s La parentalité en question. Perspectives sociologiques, written for the Haut conseil de la population et de la famille (High Council on Population and Family) in 2003.
  • [5]
    On the history of filiation, see Iacub M., 2004, L’Empire du ventre. Pour une autre histoire de la maternité, Fayard.
  • [6]
    Rozée V., de La Rochebrochard É., 2021, Assisted human reproduction outside the French legal and medical framework: Issues and challenges, Population & Societies, 593, October.
  • [7]
    A form of medically assisted reproduction for couples of women.
  • [8]
    Hertzog I., Mathieu M., 2021, Pour une analyse globale, internationale et interdisciplinaire du travail procréatif, Enfances familles générations, 38.
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